School Librarians – a profession with chronic low self-esteem?

16 Sep

I remember back when I was studying for an MSc in Information and Library studies, I read about some research into where librarians ranked themselves compared to other occupations, e.g. teacher, doctor, solicitor etc. Librarians ranked themselves about equal to bank clerks. I was surprised but shook it off as outdated research that couldn’t possibly apply to the generation of librarians I was qualifying along with. We were new Information Professionals who embraced what technology and new media could do for libraries. We would do fun and exciting things and explode the stereotypes!

Some years later, I am a chartered librarian working in a school, in Scotland. This job requires the librarian to be qualified (or to have significant experience) but there is no requirement to charter and no pay increase related to it. It pays OK, for a school library job in Scotland. I can’t deny that my early optimism isn’t a little bruised and dented by experience.

Occasionally I feel a bit squashed down by fellow professionals with (what are in my opinion) outdated ideas. I’m still bothered by being booed for admitting to using Wikipedia at a library conference. It saddened me that one colleague’s parting advice on retirement was “whatever you do, don’t get stuck with the label ‘school librarian’”. It worries me that back at university someone in authority implied ‘take a school librarian job to get your foot in the door, do 18 months-2 years and then get the hell out of there’. I’ve been doing this job for nearly 3 years now so that one particularly comes back to me now!

Sometimes it is hard being surrounded by teachers. They have a strong identity as a group, they have educational philosophies, curricula, government inspections and consultations, powerful trade unions, unique laws about teaching time and preparation time. In short, a whole vocabulary of teacher-speak and the school librarian spends their time translating between librarian-speak and teacher-speak. It’s a brutal numbers game where teacher-speak is inevitably the dominant language and it can be hard sometimes to hang on to that librarian identity and not feel like not-quite-a-teacher and not-quite-a-librarian.

I get irritated by the way stereotypes are hard to shake whatever I do. News flash: I am wearing glasses and even a cardigan. What can I say? Do I have librarian genes giving me poor eyesight and sensitivity to the cold? I am not wearing my hair in a bun, I seriously hope I do not dress ‘like a librarian’ whatever that means. I can’t remember the last time I ‘shushed’ someone although as it is part of my job to make the library a space that is conducive to study, and yes that does involve sometimes reminding students they should catch up on the gossip at lunchtime and not during a ‘study’ period. I do smile, heck, I even crack jokes (I can’t promise they are any good). But why should I feel any more pressure about how I look or speak compared to anyone else heading out to work today?

There are derogatory uses of the word ‘librarian’ peppered through popular culture. You might not have noticed but listen out and you will. The last one I heard was an audiobook where a character was described as looking ‘more like a librarian than a dangerous criminal’ or something along those lines. I cringe whenever a librarian features in a murder mystery –“here you go officer, these are the detailed records of exactly what Mr Suspicious has been borrowing, no need for a warrant, and I always thought he was a wrong’un”, so much for a non-judgemental private borrowing service! And what about ‘librarian chic’ fashion features (I know this might be difficult for some of you to accept but this particular librarian is an avid reader of Vogue). If I were to go in for this style it wouldn’t be, well, ‘chic’, any more, would it? It would just be ‘librarian’…and that’s bad.

Bearing this all in mind (and the fact that there hasn’t been much good news about libraries around lately) when someone flags up a library news article for me I can’t help but go straight from 1-10 on my grump-o-meter. No one understands, I mutter, no one takes the time to actually find out what we do and what its worth. This is before I’ve even read it; here we go I think, more bad news, more criticism, more stereotypes, more cuts. I’ve been wondering if I should label myself ‘angry librarian’ instead of ‘noisy librarian’!

It was in this sort of frame of mind that I cautiously opened a link to “School Library ‘missed opportunity’” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11304759. I was a bit confused at first – surprised that “a third of staff responsible for school libraries have “no specialist knowledge of children’s literature”” and its call that “library staff should have access to training” – but then I remembered, the School Library Commission only looked at England and then it all made sense.

It is a shame that the BBC article did not make it clear that the Commission was only looking at England. It seems to me to be even more of a shame that the Commission itself didn’t come to look at the Scottish school library system, being neighbours, it seems obvious we must have a lot to learn from each other. Until recently the majority of Scottish secondary schools had a full-time qualified librarian. I say until recently because of various cutbacks, we can’t be sure how things stand right now. It angers me that while a report in England is saying children directly benefit from better library provision and more training for librarians, local authorities in Scotland are cutting back on school libraries. It seems we are following England’s lead when according to everything this report is saying; it should be the opposite way around.

Although it stops short of saying so, everything in the School Library Commission points towards a dual-qualification system such as that in the USA or Australia. In these countries, school librarians are qualified teachers and qualified librarians. The School Library Commission is only asking for greater integration, with modules on teaching in the librarianship training, and modules on school libraries for trainee teachers. This would be a good step. I have conflicting feelings about dual qualification. It isn’t the system I came through, and funnily enough although I work in a school I was never interested in teaching and never considered it as a career. I still don’t want to be a teacher. I see school libraries as contributing to all those parts of education that aren’t about ticking boxes or assigning people grades and marks.

Do teaching and librarianship share enough values to merge easily? In research into library ethics ‘Learning and Teaching’ came out as one of the principles least reflected in the ethical statements of library organisations globally*.

On the other hand, sector-specific training would be a great help. There are courses now and then but nothing nationwide and nothing compulsory. There are parts of this job that bear no relation to what librarians do in other sectors. Dealing with behaviour for example – it isn’t something I feel particularly at ease with as a librarian, but every member of staff in a school has a role in supporting the ethos of that school. This isn’t covered in library training; personally I have learned some skills in this area by reading up and by observation of how teachers behave. But it is a heck of a shock straight out of library school. Those skills aren’t librarian skills – they are teaching skills – so perhaps it is time we call it what it is.

The part of the School Library Commission which most intrigued me was actually the transcript of the focus group with school staff (http://www.literacy trust.org.uk/policy/nlt_policy/school_library_commission/transcript_of_focus_group_one). There is evidence of school librarians being badly treated – a librarian not being allowed to use the staff room, for example. Other issues which will strike a chord with many a school librarian will be the need to be ‘pushy’, the importance of finding a ‘champion’ for the library within the school management and the potential for isolation.

Here again we face another stereotype – that librarians are shy, retiring types when the reverse is true. Being a school librarian is unusual. I am the only one in my workplace who does the job I do. It is not easy and yes you need to get a bit pushy. You need to be very self-motivating. That many school libraries around the country do thrive is a testament to pushy librarians everywhere; pushy librarians who work very hard and aren’t always paid appropriately; pushy librarians who find those library ‘champions’, promote what they do and make a success of their library.

I am a firm believer in being ‘equal but different’ to teachers. However it is very hard to strike a balance. There is a disparity between teachers’ and librarians’ pay. It’s a case of not wanting to be taken advantage of yet wanting to play a full role in school life. Making the most of all the opportunities there are as a school librarian, making the case for the value of school libraries, without becoming downtrodden by being underpaid and undervalued. We should be saying here is a job that is worth doing, worth valuing, worth paying a fair wage for.

*Forthcoming: McMenemy & Armstrong, ‘Do librarians have shared values? A comparative study of 36 codes of ethics‘, Journal of Library and Information Studies

(CILIP members can access JOLIS free online as part of their membership)

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2 Responses to “School Librarians – a profession with chronic low self-esteem?”

  1. Anne Robinson October 19, 2010 at 10:00 #

    I don’t think I could have put it better myself! Glad I found your blog 🙂

  2. callmecathy October 19, 2010 at 12:31 #

    I’m glad you enjoyed my post, and welcome to our blog, I am likewise very glad you found us 🙂

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